Understanding Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Understanding IBS

You don’t know when it’ll hit. The pain in your gut, gas, and a constant need to find a bathroom. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can run your entire life. It might even be something you’ve dealt with from a young age. Unfortunately, understanding IBS can be difficult — but learning how to deal with your symptoms will let you take back your life.

Symptoms of IBS

The symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome can vary with each person. You may have times when your symptoms improve dramatically, or when they worsen. When you’re having IBS symptoms, the following are common:

  • Increased gas with bloating and burping
  • Diarrhea and sudden urges to have a bowel movement
  • Constipation
  • Mucus in your stool
  • Cramping and/or abdominal pain that lasts until you have a bowel movement
  • Nausea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Cramping or pain after eating
  • Increased symptoms during menstrual periods (for women)

Who gets IBS?

Anyone can have the occasional symptom of IBS. However, you’re more likely to suffer from regular IBS symptoms if:

  • You have a family history of IBS
  • You have a mental health problem. Mental health issues like depression, eating disorders, and anxiety are associated with IBS
  • You have a history of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse
  • You’re a woman. In fact IBS is twice as common in women as it is in men
  • You’re young. People under 50 are more likely to suffer from IBS

Complications of irritable bowel syndrome

While not life-threatening, irritable bowel syndrome can present you with some difficult complications. You may find it hard to go out in public or with friends, since you don’t know when the symptoms will hit you or where you’ll find a bathroom. Even work and social situations can feel overwhelming when you’re suffering from IBS. The complications of IBS may include:

  • Hemorrhoids
  • New or worsening mood disorders such as depression and anxiety
  • Poor quality of life

What triggers IBS?

Each person has different triggers of their IBS, but common triggers include:

  • Stress
  • Medications
  • Eating certain foods
  • Hormonal changes

If you’re not sure what’s triggering your symptoms, keep a diary to identify specific triggers. Make note of the time of day you experience symptoms, what you’ve eaten, and what else is going on in your life when symptoms arise.


Irritable bowel syndrome is typically difficult to diagnose. Your doctor may do a variety of tests to rule out other conditions that share similar symptoms. These tests can include blood tests, stool tests, CT scans, or x-rays. The specific diagnosis of IBS is based on symptoms that are associated with different stool types such as loose stools, diarrhea, and constipation.


You don’t have to live with IBS symptoms. Treatment options can relieve the symptoms and improve your quality of life. Comprehensive treatment includes identifying and modifying food and lifestyles that trigger your symptoms and using medications to treat the most bothersome symptoms of IBS, such as diarrhea, constipation, and bloating.

At-home treatment options for IBS

These lifestyle modifications may help relieve IBS symptoms:

  • Exercise regularly
  • Drink enough water
  • Get enough sleep
  • Mindfulness training such as meditation
  • Consider probiotic supplements or certain foods
  • Identify stress triggers and work to reduce and avoid them
  • Keep a food diary to identify trigger foods

Foods are a powerful trigger for IBS and often include foods that are normally considered to be healthy:

  • Certain fruits and vegetables are known triggers
  • Many dairy products including yogurt
  • High-fructose corn syrup, which is the main sweetener in processed foods
  • Artificially sweetened foods
  • Foods containing gluten
  • Foods that contain carbohydrates known as FODMAPs

Your doctor can provide resources to identify trigger foods, which may include a visit with a nutritionist.


You may be able to take over-the-counter and/or prescription medications for your IBS symptoms. Over-the-counter medications can include:

  • Fiber supplements to help control constipation and keep you regular
  • Laxatives to help relieve constipation where fiber doesn’t
  • Anti-diarrheal medications such as Imodium

In addition to over-the-counter remedies, your doctor may prescribe the following to help with your IBS:

  • Antidepressants
  • Medications to help with pain such as anticholinergic medications
  • Prescription medications to address constipation and diarrhea that don’t respond to over-the-counter treatments

When to see a doctor

Symptoms of IBS are uncomfortable, but not typically life-threatening. if you experience any of the following symptoms in addition to those listed above, see your doctor immediately.

  • Rectal bleeding
  • Vomiting
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Weight loss
  • Diarrhea at night
  • Iron deficiency anemia
  • Pain that isn’t relieved by a bowel movement or passing gas

Dealing with IBS symptoms doesn’t have to rule your life. Talk to your doctor about treatment options. Being proactive will help you understand your body’s triggers so you can improve your quality of life.